“We were wanderers. Moving constantly without much of a reason, until that day. From no plans to structured road-maps to help villages get the basic facility of light, we have come a long way, and yet it feels that a longer journey awaits”
Life is a lot like roads leading up to a mountain. You never know what’s in store at the next sharp turn—this idea best explains the accidental discovery by two friends that changed their lives forever.
Fed-up with the rat race of urban life, Rajiv Rathod and Merwyn Coutinho had hit the road without a plan. All they wanted to do was to keep moving, up until they came across a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh, shrouded in darkness.
The moment the clock would strike 5, people would hurry to pack up for the day. While some struggled to finish all their household chores before the nightfall, others huddled around the fires, or borrow torches from others.
This was the reality of villages like Vijayanagar and Gandhigram in Arunachal Pradesh, that hit the duo hard enough to push them to make substantial changes.
“These villages were so remote that, to reach them, one had to walk for seven days straight from the nearest town, Miao. There is no road or transport facility. We had chanced upon the place in 2010 when we went there for a day or two. The experience bothered us and stayed with us. So when we were invited to be a part of Christmas celebrations in Gandhigram the following year, we decided to bear the gift of light,” says Rajiv Rathod, speaking to The Better India (TBI).
Rajiv and Merwyn Coutinho began the Batti project, which has electrified 434 households in 44 villages across the state!
A beginning without a plan
Rajiv was an engineering student, and Merwyn was a techie in a software company when they met in 2005 through a common friend. Besides this friend, the only two things common between them was their love for travel and the ever-growing disillusionment with a conventional urban life.
“We both were unhappy with the way things were going on around us. We were fed-up with the rat-race and yearned to get away. So after that meeting, we slowly became travel partners travelling all across the country,” says Rajiv, who eventually quit college in 2007 to begin his own small-scale business in textiles.
They began with small trips, but slowly as the bond of friendship grew stronger along with the shared feeling of restlessness, the goal to be on the road became clearer to the two. This led to Merwyn quitting his job in 2010, and Rajiv shutting shop despite the profits.
“We both had a void that only travel could fill,” adds Rajiv.
Almost a year had passed with them moving across the country, especially the Northeast, when in December of 2011, they made their life-changing trip to a village in Arunachal Pradesh.
“We trekked to Vijayanagar, one of the many remote villages in the region, and the experience was memorable. I remember how the daily lives of the villagers would come to a close with the setting sun. At night, the darkness outside would be the same as the darkness in your eyes when you close them. It was different and thought-provoking,” says Rajiv, who had then spent only two days in the area.
The next year, they were invited to the same region for Christmas celebrations, and the duo devised a plan for a 30-day stay.
“It was a big celebration in Gandhigram in Changlang district, and we decided to bring gifts. Realising the need for light, we brought them solar lamps and installed them all across the area. We expected joy, but what we didn’t expect was a life’s purpose. Once Gandhigram was lit up, the heads from neighbouring villages began to approach us, asking when their villages will light up. Most mistook us to be from the NGO or the government,” he says.
But, instead of turning them away, the duo decided to bring other villages, electricity.
The next few days went by in researching and reconnecting with their friends back in the cities. Through social media, they reached out to a lot of people, informing them about their initiative to install solar-powered lights in remote villages. A week later, they had managed to collect enough money to bring light to 20 houses in the region.
“For two days, we walked all around the villages, setting up the wire and batteries before the installation. Many did not know how to use modern gadgets, so we also taught them things like using switches and how to take care of the system,” says Merwyn.
And, thus, Batti Project was born.
Batti Project- inclusive but not evasive
The objective of the project was to address the needs of the village for basic electricity and to reduce their dependence on the only source of energy and light—fire. However, they maintain a strict policy of ‘ask to get’.
“We never wanted to intervene in the indigenous lifestyle of the tribes there. So assuming that everyone needs electricity and imposing it upon them was not right. Instead, we installed our solar-powered lighting systems only on request from villagers,” says Rajiv.
Treading upon the thin line that defines what ‘development’ truly is, they decided not to be the teachers, saviours or heroes but just facilitators.
“City-dwellers like us tend to harbour romantic ideas that the untouched must stay untouched. But we forget that it’s not our place to decide if remote communities should live undisturbed or interact with the outside world. That right is held solely by the community in question. And with them coming to us for help, we have no right to refuse as well. Instead, we try to help them make the choices that are most sustainable to their future,” he adds.
So, as part of the project, each household gets a lighting system which includes three 3-watt LED tube-lights, one 21-watt panel and 20AH battery, for one-tenth of the total expenditure, i.e. Rs 1500.
The total cost of the system ranges from Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per household.
From procurement, transport to installation, the major part of the expenditure comes from crowdfunding and other avenues. One way to raise funds is the Ride to Light initiative, which urged people to raise a sum of money to enroll in the cycling race.
Under this initiative, if the cyclists wanted to join the race, then they had to collect a certain amount of funds.
This money would then be used to fund electricity in 5 houses, and also cover the travel expenses of the cyclist as they experienced the the tribal cultures and landscapes of the eastern Himalayas.
Every batch has 25 such cyclists. In 2016, Northeast’s first woman to scale Mount Everest, Tine Mena, was also a part of it.
Currently, with the help of a team from Technical University of Munich (TUM), they are lighting up a 50-student government primary residential school in Jumupani village in Lower Dibang Valley district.
“We are working on a power system which will run independently with the help of water and solar. It is of 1-kilowatt power and will be entirely maintained by the school and the communities around,” says Merwyn. They further informed that once complete, this will become the first government school in rural North East to have electricity managed independently.
After working for more than seven years now, Batti Project has gathered much appreciation. But, a particular incident with a member of a tribal community is one of the most prized.
“There was this 90-year-old woman in a village who didn’t know how to use switches. So we electrified her house and taught her to operate switches. Seeing the joy on her face was priceless. She said that now she would be able to step down from her bed after nightfall and move around the house. It might sound inconsequential for people like us, but for a person who has spent most of her life in this darkness, this meant a lot,” shares Rajiv.
After some time, when the duo went to check, they found out that the woman doesn’t switch off the lights at all.
“Her simple justification is that, after a life without light, she doesn’t want to part with it even for a minute. It was truly touching,” adds Rajiv.
Their work has reached far and wide to almost 44 villages, and they hope to move further into the interior parts, taking light where it’s wanted. All this while their life on road continues.
“We were wanderers; moving constantly without much of a reason, until that day. From no plans to structured road-maps to helping villages get the basic facility of light, we have come a long way, and yet it feels that a longer journey awaits” Merwyn signs off.
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(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)